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Free speech challenge to Australian vilification laws

By Jo Coghlan - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Brendan O'Connor, the newly announced Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, will likely defer to his predecessor Chris Bowen and allow controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders a visa to Australia this month. Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, who is Tony Abbott's parliamentary secretary, has previously supported a bid by Wilders to visit on the grounds of free speech.It is unlikely the new Minister will meet Wilders to debate his views, which Bowen called offensive. This will suit Wilders. A debate with an Australian government minister on issues of race, religion and immigration will give legitimacy to Wilders view. To ignore him only raises his profile as a voice against governments that he claims are unconcerned with the plight of citizens increasing alienated because of cultural diversity driven by multiculturalism. Wilders knows how to play this game.

Wilders has built a political career on playing one group against another. Denied the right to speak on cultural issues, he decries the lack of free speech. Yet his views similarly deny not only free speech but also the rights of those he sees as a threat to Western ideals and values. It is not a sustainable, nor logical position, but for Wilders it has been an effective political strategy in the Netherlands where he has held a seat in the 150 seat federal House of Representatives since 1998.

Originally a member of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, Wilders resigned in 2002 to form his own political party, Group Wilders. The timing of his decision coincided with the murder of Pim Fortuyn. Pim Fortuyn, a former Marxist scholar who had been a member of the Dutch Labour Party since 1974, increasingly spoke out against increasing levels of Muslim immigration in the Netherlands and called for a decline in multiculturalism in favor of integration. In the general election, nine days after Fortuyn's death, Fortuyn's newly formed political party secured 17 per cent of the House of Representatives vote. Previously no far right wing party had secured more than three per cent. This result polarised Dutch politics and saw the major parties shift to the right on social and cultural issues.

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Pim Fortuyn's success was positioning his party as a 'peoples party' unbeholden to the political establishment, mainstream parties, and the European Union. Geert Wilders adopted a similar political strategy. In policy areas, while both politicians were outspoken critics of Islam, Fortuyn and Wilders differed in a number of areas. Fortuyn was gay and advocated gay rights, he also called for the legalisation of euthanasia, and the repelling of criminal codes against the use of recreational drugs. Fortuyn also supported free trade and globalisation.

Over the last decade Wilders political platforms have consistently focused on what he refers to as the problematic 'Islamification of the Netherlands'. He claims Islam is an expansionist ideology, "spreading like wildfire everywhere in the West where political, academic, cultural media elites lack the guts to proudly proclaim...our Judeo-Christian Western culture is far better and far superior to Islamic culture". What is evident in Wilders manifesto is that Islam is a universal, political and religious ideology that threatens not only Dutch national interests but Western values.

A regular traveller to the U.S and Britain, Wilders will now come to Australia. His message is that Islamic multiculturalism is a threat to not only Australian culture but to Western values. An un-assimilated Islamic population, according to Wilders, means an end of free societies with less individual freedoms. He sees it as inevitable that the growth of a Muslim population will bring with it values and practices that are incompatible with what he refers to as Western humanist, democratic, and liberal values.Wilders views have not escaped scrutiny. In 2009 he was charged under Sections 137c and 137d of the Dutch penal code, for inciting hate speech and discrimination. He claimed he was politically persecuted and a victim denied his right to free speech.

Without a Bill of Rights, free speech is not a right in Australia. It is implied in the Australian Constitution but laws determine speech only to be free if it does not incite, harm or offend. According to the Australian Immigration Department,the intention of free speech must be constructive and not to do harm. There are laws against saying or writing things to incite hatred against others because of their culture, ethnicity or background. Freedom of speech is not an excuse to harm others. For Australian Muslims, it is reasonable to suggest that Wilders views are offensive. Reports urging white supremacists to gather at Wilders addresses, held at undisclosed locations, ready "for trouble and a no-holds barred fight" suggest incitement and likely harm.

Radio Free Australia, the self-proclaimed "voice of white revolution in Australia", has announced that it "encourage[s] you in the strongest possible terms…" to attend. With the locations only made available to ticket holders, the day before Wilders speeches, the broadcast further claims this will "reduce the amount of time that Islamic terrorists will have to organise counter-demonstrations and generally cause trouble." It further incites "it is quite likely" there will be "Islamic violence". "We would encourage all patriots to exercise their legal right of self-defence if any ragheads…use violence".

Not only will Brendan O'Connor face his first test as Immigration Minister, so too may Mark Dreyfus as the newly appointed Attorney General.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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